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The Taking of Pelham 123

June 14, 2009 - Ken Womack
The Taking of Pelham 123 **

Something is rotten in the state of Hollywood, and it turns out to be the usual malady: a terrible, menacing lack of new ideas. Oh where oh where are the vision and inspiration that once made the film industry so grand? The Taking of Pelham 123 takes things a step further, actually being a remake of a remake. The original 1974 version, starring the great Walter Matthau, was pretty decent, all things considered. The 1998 made-for-television movie, featuring Edward James Olmos, was passable at best. And this latest version, directed by the talented Tony Scott, makes for a satisfactory, if lackluster entertainment. Yet in another sense, the whole project seems vaguely unnecessary. With a screenplay by Brian Helgeland of LA Confidential fame, The Taking of Pelham 123 sports an A-list cast, including Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, and James Gandolfini. That’s a lot of firepower, by anyone’s measure, for the remake of a remake. The plot is fairly simple: a sociopathic criminal type named Ryder (Travolta) has taken command of subway train Pelham 123, and he’s threatening to kill 19 hostages if the authorities fail to meet his demands. If he doesn’t receive $10 million in the space of an hour, he’ll start killing the hostages one by one. Enter hostage negotiator Walter Garber (Washington), a disgraced cop who’s under suspicion for allegedly taking a bribe. As the movie unfolds, Walter finds himself pitted against Ryder, not to mention against a fellow hostage negotiator (Turturro) and the New York City mayor himself (Gandolfini). For Walter, the politics are simply stifling. For the most part, the performances in The Taking of Pelham 123 are largely unimpressive and, worse yet, predictable. Washington is competent as always, while Travolta plays Ryder like some kind of goofy malevolent freak. But the acting, quite frankly, is rather beside the point. A superlative cast that includes Washington, Travolta, and Gandolfini—not to mention a helmsman like Scott and a writer like Helgeland—begs a rather obvious question: with so much cinematic talent under one roof, why produce a remake? Why not go out and create new works of art instead of recycling the old? It’s not like they’re remaking the classics here, and it’s patently difficult to imagine Washington, Travolta, and Scott sitting around the old studio, wondering aloud how much fun it would be to remake The Taking of Pelham 123. Surely, they all have bigger game in their sights than remaking a remake of a B-movie from the 1970s. Don’t they?


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